The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board spoke on Wednesday with Rick Blangiardi, the mayor of the City and County of Honolulu. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and also for stories, including two already published earlier this week on hiring challenges and possible delays on the rail project. Blangiardi began by addressing his top agenda items.

Things haven’t changed from what we knew of the priorities coming in. We knew that the homeless situation was massive. We knew that the rail situation was. When you talk about what’s more equal, if you will, I would just run the list of homelessness, rail, affordable housing, public safety has definitely moved up, infrastructure becomes something that I spent a lot of time on for a lot of reasons that you might understand. I would tell you also elder care has come up with our aging population.

Those would be the top six with the following caveat, if you will — and it’s been talked about — but our staffing levels and what we intend to do with respect to the city, which are absolutely critical to us, providing core city services. But more than anything, I don’t want to compromise the leadership capability of the men and woman we’ve brought in, and I’m very excited about our team.

And then the other part of it is also modernizing the city. But I can tell you operationally, when you get inside, those issues are not easily solved. We’ve been looking at what we could do to streamline hiring practices. We certainly have looked at having money available to make those hires. We’ve also looked at job stabilization from the standpoint I think we talked today about 3,000 vacancies, how many what we really need, what’s really required in really putting our heads around that.

Because for me, as a lasting contribution to the city — say what you will about what we hope to achieve in our efforts against homelessness or the creation of affordable housing, or what we’re doing with the rail or any of the other six that I mentioned — this is one of those things that if we get this right and we correct it — not only our ability to attract high-quality men and women who want to come work for the city — but it’s a real lasting contribution.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi talks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters, Aug. 3, 2022, at Civil Beat's office.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi spoke to the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters in Civil Beat’s offices on Wednesday. At left is his communications director, Scott Humber. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Because right now, it’s not a good direction. Right now, 50% of our workforce is beyond the age of retirement. It’s not a head count kind of a deal. It’s what you lose in that equation, because people who have, so many of them have given so much of themselves.

Saturday night, I was at Hoomaluhia (Botanical Garden) and we gave a proclamation to a woman who was retiring after 36 years. Now that’s a 400-acre spread, so one person can only have so much effect. But you could just tell that this woman had given her life to that whole place out there and how much it meant to her. You know what I mean?

So, on the one hand, we talk about our staffing shortages, I don’t want to discount at all the 8,600 men and women we currently have employed by the city. But the challenge for us also is to come in as a team of, let’s say it’s 100 between directors, deputy directors, inheriting 8,500 employees. And we’re basically all new except for a few people within that. And that’s its own thing on how we want to deal with that.

And then the affordable housing part. I think this ($28 million) affordable housing fund is only a part of what we’re looking at. And as we’ve mentioned, in September, there’ll be another appropriation. The city’s getting back into private activity bonds. That is a more complicated process.

In fact, I said this morning to our team cabinet meeting, if we played the word game and you said affordable housing, I think the first thing that would come up was, I would say, “much needed,” “essential.” The second one, I would say, is “complicated.” It’s complicated in the sense that there was no clear trajectory of where the city was going in that regard. What is the city’s role? What can it do? We don’t have a big building department. We have Design and Construction, they do all the capital improvement programs.

The City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services announced their list of six eligible projects that will produce 972 affordable housing units within the next 5 years.
On Tuesday the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services announced a list of six eligible projects to produce 972 affordable housing units within the next five years. Blangiardi said he’s learned that the process is a complicated one. 

But there’s not this group of men and women who, you go out there and go, “Go build 20 houses or an apartment building.” That doesn’t exist. We’re sort of playmakers in this deal on what we can possibly do.

Now, we have monies available to, you know, buy buildings if we can buy a piece of land. And then what we do with that vis-à-vis RFP is with developers and stuff.

And even that strategy and trying to piece together what’s going on before us, it was done in a very disparate way as far as not having a strategy.

And not only that, the monies that were used to buy these buildings, in many cases, because of the bonds that we utilize, preclude us from going forward and converting them to affordable housing, which is again a very complicated matter and hard for one to get around. So please don’t ask me for a more detailed explanation than that, except to say we own a bunch of stuff that we can’t even do with it what I would like to do with it.

I’m hearing you say that we have this major crisis that we’ve all discussed, which you discussed about before you got in office, and yet there’s little you can really do.

Well, I’m not one to be accepting of “little we can do.” I’m looking to say, “Let’s not let that get in the way.” And how do we break down those barriers, and what do we have to change in order to be able to do that? And how are we looking at it?

I’m not going to accept that because that, I think, is too easily accepted. And that’s part of my challenge also, and what we’re trying to do in building our staffing is that, let’s not get in the business of making excuses why things can’t get done. I told our team this morning in no uncertain way: “No excuses, no whining, no complaints. You know, we’re going to get the job done.”

So it’s left to us now to try to figure that out. It’s a minefield. It’s not all that easy, and it’s a little bit frustrating. It’s 19 months to the day yesterday of being in office, admittedly distracted by Covid, but the time that it takes to do this stuff. And I said in one of the interviews last night, I operate with a sense of urgency. But the most difficult part of that is calibrating it, against the time and the obstacles and the processes that you have to deal with. The clock is ticking.

I mean, you’re almost halfway through your first term.

Yeah, I am. I am. The clock is ticking, isn’t it?

Briefly on the staffing. Is it primarily salaries compared with the private sector? Is it primarily having to deal with the various unions? What is the real nub of getting these people hired that it takes 180 days?

This is really neither one of those. It’s the city has not operated in any kind of recruiting mode at all to attract people. For an organization that’s theoretically budgeted for well over 10,000 people, there’s no recruiting arm. Can you imagine anybody in the private sector having a 10,000-person company and not be in the business of recruiting?

There’s a fact that they accept that it takes six months to hire somebody. That’s the antithesis of recruiting.

We just haven’t had that kind of outreach. The city has a good (internship) program, Po’okela, but that’s very limited. But you know, I looked around and we don’t have any existing internships with three colleges in town — University of Hawaii, Chaminade, and HPU.

Honolulu Hale City Hall.
The mayor says he was very surprised how little job recruitment the City and County of Honolulu conducted prior to his administration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

For that matter, it’s participation, if you will, and the kind of outreach. I was told that they didn’t even go to the job fairs. Somebody had gone once upon a time and handed out a few leaflets. That didn’t work.

So it really has a lot to do with the cultural aspects of putting a value and a perspective on your workforce and paying attention to that.

And all that goes into that. And looking at it systemically, what’s the breakdown? So you’ve got a hold up in various departments just because of the way that they had functioned before as a priority. It’s internal.

The affordable housing program that you announced — funding towards six projects that will create almost a thousand units within five years. Why did it take 19 months to get to this point where you’re awarding these projects?

These are monies that were lapsed, accumulated from the previous administration. Then you have 20 developers as well. But quite honestly, we even have Anton (Krucky, community services director) in that role until to about seven or eight months ago. And, you know, when you do that, it’s not a perfect science, the people-picking business is.

But for the most part, we did really extremely well and we kind of knew that at the time. We were really humbled by the extraordinary men and women who were willing to leave good jobs, take pay cuts, who wanted to work for the city because they understood at that time.

Remember, we got sworn in on Jan. 2, 2021. There wasn’t even any talk about the vaccine being readily available. The uncertainty and the fear in this town, the businesses that had been lost, everything else that had been accruing over the seven months since as we’ve been shut down since March was pretty daunting.

And then they had a whole lot of things to work through. So I would tell you that it hasn’t been the entire 19 months. I think at the beginning we were understanding that that role is 95% HUD’s, you know, federal monies — that department puts out a lot of monies in HUD and subsidies — they were doing a whole lot of good work in there. But we needed to take it to a different level. And so then you have to put it out. From the time you put something out, you’ve got to give a window of so many days. All these things take time, whether it’s 90 days or 180, I’m not sure. The developers submit those projects and then have to be evaluated and so on. It’s very time consuming.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi talks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters, Aug. 3, 2022, at Civil Beat's office.
The mayor says four years is not enough to fix the problems with the City and County of Honolulu. Health willing, he’ll run again in 2024. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

But we were out of touch. If I said to you, when we talk about modernizing the city, if we’re in the third year of the third decade of the 21st century, you pick a timeline. I can tell you right now, with very few exceptions Honolulu is inept in that space. Now, I don’t think that that’s atypical from what I’ve been able to learn from other cities, okay? But we’re determined to take big steps forward, and so we’ve invested heavily.

I want to give you another context. You may not understand this, but we come into office in January — we’re coming into office in the middle of a fiscal year prepared by the prior administration. And that particular fiscal year was impacted because of the onset of Covid early on and then how that administration reacted to Covid. And they did a lot of cuts in hiring, and other things that they did across the board.

They then prepared the fiscal year ’22 budget. And we had 60 days from Jan. 2 to March 2 by charter to balance that budget, which, if you recall, they went out of office saying that there was a $400 million revenue shortfall in the middle of a pandemic.

So one of the first things we do when we came in there, and the very first message I wanted to say to all the men and women working at the city: We’re not going to do this through furloughs because we had watched what happened at the state and saw how that didn’t work. We were not going to raise property taxes — were dead set on that. We’re not going to cut core city services. In a $4.2 billion budget, we’re going to somehow find those monies to balance that budget in 60 days. And we did, but the only thing was we announced a hiring freeze, except for first responders, while we could settle down to try to figure out all those many lines.

But that fiscal ’22 budget was predicated on the ’21 budget, which was their budget, which had little wiggle room, which we’ve lived with until this past July 1. So it takes 18 months for us to even begin to operate with a budget that was of our thinking. So in this particular case, we put $59 million for staffing. We increased the digital information technology department by 40%. I mean, Mark Wong (the information technology director) would tell you he never had an increase like that before.

They didn’t even invest in the IT sector. It was a minimal investment. I can’t say they didn’t completely invest, because they did, you know, perfunctorily, minimal increases every year, but not the kind of capital investment that would allow us to be able to do what we need to do, you know, in information technology. You show up with urgency and then you get into all these things and there’s the time it takes to move things, and there are circumstances.

How is running a city is different than running a TV station? Just reflecting on the last year and a half, what’s different for you? How does it feel?

I was very proud of my body of work in media. And when I came back to Hawaii in 2002 and it was for the first time ever to run two television stations simultaneously — everybody thought that couldn’t be done — but I just left Telemundo, and I’d been president of a couple of national broadcast companies.

But candidly speaking, when you’re in a broadcast operation, even though everything you do for media operations is for the general public  — but when you’re working for broadcast ownership, you’re focused on revenue, you’re focused on news ratings, you’re focused on marketing. And you get into that kind of realm of activity, and then you get some extra credit for what you do in outreach and working with nonprofits and what you can do to establish your enterprise as a vital part of the community.

That’s a very different model than walking into the city. When you have 26 different cabinet positions, many of whom — about Design and Construction and Community Service, Customer Service — just Corporation Council alone, which reports directly to me, we’ve got 95 lawyers there. We got the second largest law firm in the state. You have that coming at you because there’s a lot of laws for that and all the other various departments. In that regard, you asked me, what’s on your mind? I rattle off eight things.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi talks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters, Aug. 3, 2022, at Civil Beat's office.
The mayor realized that his administration was not doing a very good job in communicating, despite his long career in media. That led to key staffing changes. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The complexity of this is significant. The gravitas of this, of what it means to the general public, is a sense of responsibility unlike anything I’ve ever known before. And I’ve raised a family and I’ve worked in some great settings and competitive settings. But there is so much at stake for so many.

You know, we get challenged with things like rent, utility relief moneys from the U.S. Treasury, and you find out it’s not just us but the rules that we know from other cities were mind-numbing from the Treasury in order to distribute those funds. And how are we going to do it, and understanding how important that was. And then to be able to figure that out and get that done to the point where we got recognized by the Treasury as one of the top (distributors of Emergency Rental Assistance).

Under those circumstances, that’s real. Or for that matter, the decisions we made to try and navigate through Covid. You know, we took a bit of a contrarian position on a couple of different fronts. On one hand, we were the only county that mandated vaccines for our employees and ran the risk that many employees out of how many would rebel against that. And, you know, 93% of our people got totally vaccinated.

I love this job. On a personal level, to feel that I’m actually functioning right now on the challenge of a lifetime at this stage of my life, in this place that I love, where so much is at stake for so many. That’s very meaningful for me.

But then at the same time, we pushed the envelope for most of the time we got in office to get through the (reopening) tiers, which was not organized by me here, not set up by me. It was a tier structure put in place that the DOH had all the control of, but we took a broader definition of public health and not just looked at the vaccines or the level of hospitalizations — those were important metrics or for that matter, the people that were in ICU, which was really critical — and just took a different position as we tried to push it and move us forward and navigate through those tiers.

And then once we did that from January through July, then we got hit with the delta (variant), if you remember, and that became very debilitating. And then we got past delta and then omicron. We made different decisions there in what was for the greater good, if you will, and across the business sector, I mean, just look at the restaurant sector. We lost 40% of our restaurants.

A $6.5 billion a year business that employed 103,000 people during Covid. And not only that, they’re part of the fabric of our lives. And not only that, the existing ones that already lost people too, and they weren’t even operating.

When you begin to address that stuff, that’s unlike anything that I ever encountered in broadcast as one example. But the list goes on. You know, I’m sitting there to try to understand the difference between, in the beginning, wastewater and sewer water. Help me understand that. When we’re talking about stormwater utilities, what does that represent in the spirit of what we’re doing — you know, those kinds of things. Because it’s really important and you’re responsible for that, you want to make sure you have a really thorough understanding.

So are you happy?

Oh, yeah. I love this job. You know, I’ll be 76 years old next month. On a personal level, to feel that I’m actually functioning right now on the challenge of a lifetime at this stage of my life, in this place that I love, where so much is at stake for so many. That’s very meaningful for me. It’s sort of like all roads led to this and this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And so when you’re able to do that, and you are working on things that really matter, it’s a very gratifying experience.

How is the Department of Planning and Permitting doing these days? I realize you inherited a department — we all know about the five indictments, the bribery conviction. What’s the status over there. How’s Dean Uchida doing?

I think Dean Uchida is doing a very good job in what was a very difficult assignment. Maybe, perhaps the most difficult of all. And I neglected to put, when you asked me about what’s the top of mind, DPP in there when I mentioned issues of homelessness and rail and affordable housing, because I don’t want to single out a particular department because every man and woman in charge of their respective departments is challenged.

But what we asked of DPP and what we need to have happen with DPP is of monumental importance, because it is such a pivotal department in the external aspects of the city in so many different ways. When we’re talking about our clean-energy initiatives and how is DPP with the solar industry or for that matter, housing developers and even our own programing.

It’s kind of a gatekeeper in many ways.

It is. The way I like to look at DPP is that if you think of an hourglass, that middle part of the hourglass and all the activity is happening up here, but it’s going to go through that in order to come to fruition. What just happened, July 1st, is we had the monies available. So we’re putting $50 million into DPP. It’s going to involve the hiring of 160 people.

By the way, that’s a three-year plan to get 260 people. Because, here’s the other part of it: there aren’t people necessarily walking around, you know, who’ve been doing that kind of work elsewhere. So some of this, it’s going to take a while. This year, though, the first effort is to try to hire 80 people in the coming year for DPP.

Is it fair to say that that’s the priority for your recruitment — DPP?

No. The priority for our recruitment is across the board. Across the board. You know, I’ve got people in Facilities and Maintenance, in Parks and Recreation and Environmental Services, and HPD is important, but that’s only in the top five of our big needs.

Of course, with DPP, the problem is this culture of corruption that has been there for decades, much more so than any other City and County department that I can think of. How do you change that?

That’s the big question. And so when you ask me and I pause about how Dean’s doing is because he’s facing not just management challenges, but he’s facing — as evidenced by five people who were arrested — also that element, that culture of things just being done for personal favors, who’s looked the other way, who was accepting money? You know, I’m not going to point a finger at any one person, but we’ve come to learn that that’s true. So that’s that dynamic.

Jennie Javonillo walks out of the US District Court after receiving a 30-month prison term.
Jennie Javonillo received a 30-month prison term for bribery at the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting.The mayor is aware of the problems of corruption and in favor of bringing in new hires. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Here’s a situation where we want to address it monetarily with resources, because that was part of the fiscal audit that was done in 2019 and presented to Mayor Caldwell. In January of 2020 he said, you know, “Morale is bad, it lacks the investment in people, it lacks technology, too few people too overworked, etc.”

So it’s a very complicated endeavor to solve that. And then you add to that the taint, if you will, of criminal corruption on top of that, and not even knowing how deep that goes. That’s his challenge.

However, if you were to say to me what keeps me up at night? That’s right up there.

The corruption in the DPP. The entrenched problem that’s there.

It’s hard for me to evaluate how entrenched that is. I’m looking at it right now on how do we solve the fact that people have got to wait inordinate amounts of time and time is money.

So I’ve been quite honestly less focused on the corruption, and more on how do we bring in new people? How do we bring in new technology that’s absolutely needed? How do we reorganize, restructure the department? Because it’s been in a place where we know it’s just not working. We’ve been more focused on that, waiting to be able to make those investments, which we’re at now.

And we’ll see how that impacts whatever element might be there. Because as you can say to me, (there’s ) “a culture of corruption.”

I can take you on a walk-through. And I think I would say to you, who do you think is a bad person here, who is a good person? I’m not going to do that. You walk through those departments, you’ve got a lot of very nice, hardworking people. You don’t know.

So I’m not going to start accusing people. At the same time I’m not going to deny that that existed. So let’s talk about things that will really help the greater good, the people who are working there by bringing in more people so they’re less overworked by giving them technology resources.

You know, we just changed this past year. Might seem like a small thing to you, we just changed, they were all working on flip phones. They all had personal iPhones, but they were working on flip phones. You can’t do flip phone stuff in the kind of work that they were doing — I mean it’s just as an example.

For that matter, we talk about modernizing the city. We pulled computers out of the Fasi (municipal) building when we put a new data center in this year, that were from the late ’70s and ’80s.

What is it with IT in this state? It’s City and County too. Are those flip phones City and County issued?

Yeah, they were. They all know how to use an iPhone. They all had their own personal iPhones. Sometimes, when you advance technology, you have to bring a workforce along with it. They can adapt to that. But in this particular case, they had the capability. They just didn’t have the tools, and nobody’s paying attention to that.

So look, maybe it’s one of the benefits of my having come out of a media background, where from the time that I joined KGMB in 1977, I learned very quickly that it was technology-driven. And in all of the years I spent in that business, through all those many decades going from initially with film chains up to digital technology, everything, through every size video tape you want to mention, I learned appreciation for what technology can bring, even in our efforts going forward now and part of our hiring processes that we want to do.

We talked this morning about (how) we’ve had this software for 17 years called NeoGov — it is a state of the art technology. And just this past week, somebody used it for the first time in 17 years. We’re trying to move we’re trying to move mountains forward.

Just to follow up on the DPP corruption thing. How big of a deal is the perception of corruption at the city for you? At the state level, they have this new commission that’s trying to come up with different reforms. But I do think that people have an impression that the city is perhaps just as bad. Are you dealing with countering this perception of corruption at the city level. And also if there’s anything you think the city needs to do, the same way the Legislature is working on different ideas.

At our first cabinet meeting, (managing director) Mike Formby put up a slide — it was done through a city audit, it’s done every year — on where trust was in local city government, and it was down to 17%. That was a starting point. Didn’t talk about corruption. Just a starting point. It had been much higher not that many years ago, if you look at the graphic.

So, is it corruption? Is it core city services not being delivered, roads not being fixed? I mean, there’s some truth to the fact what the prior mayor said about fixing roads, because I can tell you that’s one of the more, you know, complaints you get.

I’ve chosen not to focus on the corruption part. Because as I said earlier, I don’t have any way or wherewithal or means to go in there and find out who has done what.

The gravitas of this, of what it means to the general public, is a sense of responsibility unlike anything I’ve ever known before.

All of our efforts right now are addressed to fixing the systemic operations of the city and in turn, hopefully through a good performance, superior performance than anything we’ve ever done before. Aided hopefully by an influx of men and women to allow us to do our jobs.

I said earlier, the shortage of people results in things not happening and also compromises the quality of the leadership we brought in. So I’ve been really much more focused on that. But I can tell you on a going-forward basis, I will be absolutely unforgiving towards anyone found in any form of corruption should that make itself known.

And the zero tolerance aspect of that is also something you breathe in from a leadership standpoint. So I was very vocal about the five people who were arrested. And for that matter, the sentencing of the one woman, which I think is really tragic at 72 years old, since I could relate to that. Imagine what that must be like to go to jail at this stage of life. It’s the antithesis of what I just told you about how I feel my job is. I can’t imagine going to jail right now, and nor do I want to go to jail.

To me, it’s about staying focused on the positive and not the negative, because we have such a road ahead here to regain not only public trust.

I’m taking this right from my experience as part of being one of the class of 40 in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, in which there were 23 mayors from the United States and the rest were from four different continents, and what has been more than a year long involvement, and not the least of which started off with my attending a five-day meeting with all of them in New York City. And it’s gone on throughout the year in the bi-monthly zoom calls and ongoing conversations. Not only are we challenged with building back trust in the city, but I think the added element that this is a global thing.

I can tell you, we talk a lot about regaining trust in things that we can do to build hope. So I am focused on that. And not on the corruption. Regaining trust through good performance. And building hope in the community.

Bring us up to date on the toilet paper shortage in Parks and Recreation.

Look, I was caught by surprise. We’re going to address that as fast as we can. I think it’s happened once before as well. I don’t understand why there was a supply side shortage. I don’t know if all of a sudden there was an increased usage as much as the supply wasn’t available to us.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the homelessness problem because you have moved to help solve the problem in Chinatown. Critics obviously say they’ve just moved to other areas in the city. I wonder if you can talk to me about your vision. What else do you want to do?

We want to expand our CORE (Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement) program because we think that that has real merit. And we’re doing that. We just hired a psychiatrist as well as a doctor. We’re looking to also increase our staff. I think we have a budget of 40 by the end of summer, early fall at the latest. We just met with (emergency services director) Jim Ireland today for three hours. We’ve already placed 30 people.

We’re also in the business right now of trying to secure facilities for people. And we need those kinds of places. And so it’s a very complicated model. And we still conduct cleanups, but we know that that doesn’t deal with the systemic issue.

What I like about CORE is it’s mitigated a couple of things. It has redirected the influx of 911 calls because it’s, especially now, we’ll call CORE and that’s helped alleviate some of the sort of concerns unless they determined that it’s police that are needed. In fact, I just saw a national poll on Safer Cities and actually people prefer to call health care workers than the police when it comes to the homeless situation who know what’s going on.

I can tell you, we talk a lot about regaining trust in things that we can do to build hope.

And the other thing that’s helped mitigate is because we are treating the people and we have clients out there. It is the incredible expense and burden that was placed on our hospitals. We have a $3.5 grant we haven’t even begun to spend. I just was told this morning other monies have come through but haven’t been approved yet for some $10 million. We’re looking to buy places, adaptive reuse or whatever, to be able to take these people, put them somewhere. We’re trying to do this as humanely as possible. The one thing that I really believe in is that we may not eliminate it, but it’s a scalable problem. It is a scalable problem that we can take a big bite out of.

And so far, you know, I believe the statistics — and I might be wrong — but I think it’s like, three sectors of people have been homeless for less than six months, those that have been homeless for 10 years or more and 20 years or more, like 45% of our homeless have been on the street for 10 years or more. That is when you talk about a chronic problem.

Homeless encampment near the Kalihi Transit Center.
A homeless encampment near the Kalihi Transit Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But so many of these people have gotten lost out there. And we’re trying to address that. And so one of the things I like about the CORE program is, if I understand it, that the homeless service providers before might average somewhere between a half hour to an hour of treatment with the clients that they have. We’re averaging now with the clients we’re seeing and the people we’ve been able to build some trust with, some eight to 10 hours a week of building trust. And that’s also what’s helping them get medication and is also helping us place them. You’ve got to be able to build that.

Now, that may seem a little bit slow, but we are dealing with it systemically. I kind of go back to it. If you’ve heard me say it a number of times — you have to understand a problem if we can offer solutions. I’m driven by that. Understand the problem. This is the better solution. We just need to be able to execute it more over a sustained period of time, and increase our resources and capabilities. I think we’re going to make a big difference.

That’s interesting. But still, like you said, you do some of the cleanup programs. Are those at this point kind of a last resort? Like how do you decide to do that?

Yeah, you know, I kind of let the Facilities and Maintenance, that has a kind of a schedule, to do that. We’ve had a couple of calls where we’ve seen a couple of things where I’ve asked for some assistance. And Moiliili is a really good example around Cartwright Field, and the challenge with that, to be honest, is that we know, as soon as we clean up, then they’re back. And we’re not looking to disrupt their lives. We’re trying to make it feel safe.

We started talking earlier today about public safety, different definitions, people feeling threatened by homeless people. And unfortunately, we’ve had some bad things happen where homeless people — we had a couple of murders, that’s as violent as it gets. But it was not by somebody pulling a trigger on a gun.

And so there’s a real concern. I know I’ve walked and seen homeless people and I’ve seen people cross the street so they won’t even walk down the side of somebody up against the building.

I’ve learned that people fear differently. I don’t try to judge people on how they fear, because it’s real.

Couple of things I’ve learned in my life. I’ll tell you, as I’ve gotten older — this is what you get from the benefit of a 76 year old guy in front of you — I’ve learned a couple of things to appreciate. One, I’ve learned that people fear differently. And I don’t try to judge people on how they fear, because it’s real. And what might not be something scary to me could be deathly scary to you. And so we try to operate with that sense that we don’t want people to feel that.

The other thing I’ve learned over my life is that people grieve differently, and I’ve learned to respect that because I’ve seen people not cry a tear over a parent and people lose it over a dog, pet, you know, and you try to understand that. So those are a couple of things. But the fear thing is very real. Part of the driver is you get something that looks like, that’s not right. That shouldn’t be like that.

Just quickly on Red Hill. As the mayor of the city and county, are you feeling like we are finally getting to the right place on Red Hill? I mean, there’s all sorts of contentious stuff going on there. But how do you feel?

I’ve met the new officer in charge who has come in and we had a briefing with him and his team. I think that the Navy was very acknowledging on a lot of mistakes having been made. There’s no doubt about that. I was amazed, to be honest with you, that I saw a complete 180. I mean, I went four months earlier from hearing the Navy saying we’re here to accomplish the mission to “We’re not going to close, we’re not going to drain these wells.”

So I think again, kind of in the spirit of everything we talked about, what’s happened has happened. There’s residual to that which is still getting uncovered, which is really of concern because, you know, we are the only island with all ground water. Our aquifers are sacrosanct.

Hoping that that is somewhat contained on a going-forward basis, it’s my feeling that they’ve already made big decisions here and that they’re going to deliver on those. And I’ve had briefings from Admiral John Aquilino (commander U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) from now Admiral (Stephen) Barnett ) commander Navy Region Hawaii, including have a meeting with Secretary Carlos Del Toro. And so I think, I don’t think it gets any higher than that. And so from my standpoint, as the mayor of city and county on a course correction, you know, I think the direction is established and it’s positive.

We just don’t know the results of the residual damage that was done, and how far reaching that is and how we’re going to deal with it. And I’m very concerned about that.

Any look to the future in terms of what you might be doing two years from now?

I’m going to run again. Can’t get this job done in four years.

But it does speak to the complexity of city operations. It does speak to especially when you’re trying to change cultural issues, things like that or change direction but it takes time.

So I’m only hoping my health holds up and I feel as good as I do right now. But I want to do the very best job I can. And I can tell you right now what I know, since you already alluded to, I’m almost halfway through the first term. You can’t get it done in four years, not with the direction and not with the achievements we want to make. And also, let me just add to that what I believe we can do. I have a high degree of confidence in the team we brought in.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Latest Comments (0)

Number one problem: homelessness. He speaks of cleaning up Cartwright field (Makiki, sir, not Moilili). The problem is worse now than before Blangiardi. The tents there are long term. The CORE program sounds good, but we need statistics Mr. Mayor. We need proof, not a mound of excuses.

koacook · 1 year ago

Very informative article. Thank you, CB, for asking probing questions.

katshimata · 1 year ago

At the beginning of the article, Mayor says that they have real estate holdings, and his administration is limited with what they can do with the holdings. We the people would like to have a list, a clear list, of what we the people own. Maybe a spreadsheet so that we the people can start to demand that something be done with each holding, and next to that holding list the reason why the city says they can't do anything with it. So that, we the people, can start legislating the pathway to getting what we want, with what we own.

time4truth · 1 year ago

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